Culture

CBS Radio Mystery Theater

Bill Gibron

Spinning the dial and turning back the clock, Bill Gibron travels back in time to nights bathed in darkness and pierced by the crackle of static. Emerging from the speakers, voices beckon our traveler to reflect back on ghostly images of time gone by, revived and resuscitated like the radio drama format itself, and inexorably tied to the long moment-out-of-time that was .

Road to Nowhere

It was one hell of a trip. Five hours, each direction. Even if you avoided the mandatory limits and allowed the speedometer to constantly creep above 55, it was still a staggering quarter of the day behind the wheel. It was, in fact, the kind of road trip that required stamina and a crackerjack collection of mix tapes. Otherwise, the Zen zombification of the endless pavement was guaranteed to gobble you up in its asphalt arms and literally bring everything crashing down around you. Still, if you could moderate the meditative state or the repetitive dotted yellow line, the voyage could relax, and even revitalize. I made this seemingly endless expedition often. From home in Tampa, Florida, to the state's University in Tallahassee, I clocked the 247 miles dozens and dozens of times. On occasion, it was in the pursuit of a chance to get away from the boredom of campus (I attended FSU before it was a nationally recognized football power or an infamous party school). At other times, the lure was more personal (awaiting girlfriend/fiancé, a chance to replenish the collegiate cash machine). Indeed, it seemed like every reason I had to stay at school was soon replaced by multiple arguments to hit the highway.


CBS Radio Mystery Theater
Created by Himan Brown
Broadcast from January 6, 1974 - December 31, 1982
Featuring: E.G. Marshall, Tammy Grimes, Richard Crenna, Fred Gwynne, Agnes Moorehead, John Lithgow, and more.
Sound byte of show's Welcome intro
Sound byte of "Voyage to Instrastar"
Sound byte of "The Corpse That Wouldn't Die"
Sound byte of "Picture of Dorian Gray"

The trip home usually wasn't problematic. Thanks to the amazing music being made in the late '70s and early '80s (my secondary education tenure lasted from 1979 to 1983), it was easy to measure the amount of ground covered by the number of cassettes loaded into the dashboard deck. A step-by-step sonic itinerary could instantly be mapped out: Gary Numan's Replicas from dorm driveway to papermill town Perry, London Calling (with some bonus Clash b-sides like "City of the Dead" or "The Prisoner") to Cross City. Pop in XTC's English Settlement (the full two-LP presentation, not the lame single disc Americanized offering), and once past Crystal River's evocative nuclear power plant, put in a double shot of The English Beat's I Just Can't Stop It/W'happen -- with the inclusion of the latest single, "Save it for Later" -- and cruise all the way down to the doorstep.

There were lots of these mileage mixetape experiences, a strange and surreal combination of surroundings and sound that changed and challenged the way I considered artists. One gained a whole new appreciation of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones's complex songcraft when their mangled opus Sandinista! was heard in one uninterrupted six-side blast. There was even enough time to follow a particular band from its gratifying glory days (The Ramones' first four records) to albums problematic (End of the Century) and unfairly dismissed (Pleasant Dreams). Once in a while you'd get stuck on a single song, memorizing the length of time the rewind button required to once again queue up the track. Many an hour through the beautiful backroads of Florida (no one took I-75 unless they were a motoring masochist) were spent obsessing over Ultravox's "Paths and Angles", Pete Shelley's sensational "Guess I Must Have Been in Love With Myself", or the Fergal Sharkey/Vince Clark collaboration (as the Assembly) "Never, Never".

With rare exceptions, that was how the journey downstate usually went. The drive was always filled with anticipation and amazing tunes. There was a real sense of skill in preparing the trip's musical schedule, and if there was a band (Gang of Four, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark) whose latest release had slipped under your regular radar, the excursion offered a perfect chance to slip in a cassette and make an aesthetic determination once and for all. And on those occasions when company came along for the ride (in the form of a gal/guy pal or a car pool-seeking fellow student), it was a chance to play a kind of cultural catch-up. College can be a very insular place, and such connections were crucial to stepping out from the ever-present contextual cocoon to experience new bands or mandatory EP purchases.

But the journey upstate was another matter altogether. Primarily because there was no promise at the end of the experience, just another week of skipping classes and indulging in drugs, very few if any self-made life soundtracks could enliven the experience. Simply replaying the programming from before didn't work, since the aural elements were tuned, over time, to perfectly match the logistics and landscapes. After all, Altered Image's buoyant "See Those Eyes" never synced up properly with the approaching city of Suwannee. It always played so much better with the fabled river disappearing into your southbound rear view mirror. Same for Heaven 17's Penthouse and Pavement, or Public Image Ltd.'s Second Edition. They were sonic starting off points, not aural cappers to a road well traveled. Equally, with your concentration rattled by a juvenile desire to ditch the whole scenario, it was next to impossible to appreciate something new. On the rare occasions where you found something sonically soothing, it was usually an artist (The Residents) and an album (Not Available) that underscored your seething resentment for being back on the road. As the experimental cacophony of the Eyeball guys purged the potent pure pop from the speakers, an aura of alienation swept through the car, creating a barrier between the worthless world and the instinctual need to keep on driving.

Then, one night, something strange happened. The tape deck took a dive, leaving the favorite cassette of novel noise jammed and broken, and I had to revert to radio. This was an action of complete and utter desperation, mind you, since most of the commercial airwaves of the era were jammed with disco's dying designs or the offspring of Molly Hatchet flaunting how they flirt with disaster, y'all. A spin through the FM dial proved fruitless (no kidding), but the ancient and anarchic AM seemed to hold some occasional promise. As the static mixed with the snippets of programming, I heard it: a low, moaning cello note. Without warning, a creaking door completed the sinister mix. As I fiddled a little more to get the compelling sounds to come in clearer, I suddenly found myself transported back in time. It wasn't to the glory days of wireless entertainment, though. It was to my time in boarding school and my first experience with the heralded horror/suspense series CBS Radio Mystery Theater.

Though I occasionally feel ancient, I am entirely too young to remember when radio was the chief means of in-home entertainment. The litany of classic radio programming and personalities that kept this nation amused deserves its own dissection. So let's just say that I had always been aware of the medium's importance, and on occasion caught rebroadcasts of speculative series like Inner Sanctum Mysteries. But despite being created by the same radio legend, Himan Brown, CBS Radio Mystery Theater was something different. In its attempt to recapture the glory days of bygone broadcasts, it referenced the entire post-modern canon of genre offerings, from classic sci-fi films to TV treasures like The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone. And even though it was merely a novel update to many, for our generation it represented a whole new aural attraction.

My first experience with the program came as a teenager growing up in Chicago. During my childhood, my time was divided between our "suburban" home in Michigan City, Indiana, my Dad's apartment downtown (really a collection of suites on the 28th floor of the Executive House Hotel), and the LaLumiere School for Boys in LaPorte. I relished boarding school, enjoying the freefall introduction into personal responsibility. Just isolated enough to seem limited and self-contained, and with a student body small enough (120 kids over 5 grades) to avoid the majority of high school hierarchies, it was like an enormous dose of learning LSD. A mind raised on public school pronouncements was suddenly burst wide open by the possibilities such an educational environment offered.

But there was more to it than textbooks and life lessons. Boarding school was also the place where you could, unchallenged, chart a course toward your own internal aesthetic. Sure, the standard pop culture peer pressures existed as friends tried to force their own tendencies and tastes upon you. Yet this avenue for youthful exploration yielded untold personal riches. It would take another whole lifetime to determine all the benefits I gained in my two years as a boarder.

Sometime in 1975/76, a school chum, Alan Daly, had invited me and two other friends to spend the weekend in his parent's palatial downtown flat. Since his father ran the Ticketron Outlets in Chicago, concert tickets could easily be accessed. Our choice of hard rock revelry? Why, KISS, of course (with Uriah Heep as the opening act -- hurrah!). Anyway, with the Saturday night Chicago Stadium gig all planned out, we got into the Dalys' big black stretch limousine late on Friday afternoon, and in a haze of good cheer and good pot, we began the 90 minute trek into the city.

As journeys go, it was uneventful (the trip back on the South Shore is another amazing adventure best saved for another time). As we crossed one of the many skyscraper-like bridges that allowed interstate commuters to pass over the gray and gritty factory towns like Gary and East Chicago, my roommate, Dave, finally found the radio dial. Twisting the knob to WLS (nothing but teeny bopper junk) and back over to a few FM stations, we realized very quickly that there was nothing to our liking. Settling back into our seats, someone gave the button one last spin, and out of the vehicle walls came E. G. Marshall's sonorous voice, welcoming us to another installment of CBS Radio Mystery Theater.

My head left its previous position. Where once it was comfortably situated on a cooling car windowpane, now I was completely conscious and alert. Marshall's narration continued on, and somewhere within the passenger compartment of the limo, another voice dismissed the offering and complained to change the channel. They were quickly silenced, a collective of "shhssss" sending it scrambling. As three of us listened, transfixed, a sinister sci-fi tale unfolded. It focused on a man who was being invited, along with a group of likeminded individuals, to visit an alien planet. All during their interstellar voyage, our hero gave deft descriptions of the craft, as well as the creatures that piloted it. As he spoke, there was a real sense of apprehension in his voice (the actor captured this emotion perfectly) and, soon, the limo felt just like that planet-to-planet flight.

Night had fallen and the combination of marijuana and menace had us completely engrossed. As the narrative offered more and more hints of possible horrors, the depressive effects of the joints magically washed away. In their place was a collection of confusions -- terror twisting and turning inside each and every one of us. As it masterfully moved along toward its bound-to-be-twist finale, the occasional commercial cut the episode's anxiety. It allowed us to regroup, to joke about the shared expression of fear on our faces. Finally, the last act began, and we couldn't wait for the denouement. Our narrator rattled on, describing how he and his fellow passengers no longer felt safe. Suddenly, the music swelled and the terrible truth was ready to be told. As we each sucked in an anticipatory breath, the car instantly came to a halt and the electronics in the interior switched off. Gone was the music. Gone was the storyteller. Gone was the sense of impending doom. Gone was the CBS Radio Mystery Theater.

The panic that ensued was a school dining table anecdote for weeks to come. As Alan or I replayed it over and over for classmates and teachers, the anticipation got thicker, the build up to the sudden switch off bolder. In truth, the driver had simply pulled into the Dalys' building parking garage, and with a single turn of the key, had disengaged the power from the entire vehicle. There was no cosmic cabal keeping us from hearing the ending, just the typical situational coincidence that makes life fun. Naturally, we tried to get things turned back on, with eventual success. By then, Marshall was bidding us a fond farewell and hoping we'd join him next time for another installment. I am sure, internally, we all vowed that we would, but as things usually happened during one's formative years, other events (the KISS concert, the South Shore trip) wiped away the memory of that 55 minutes of radio terror after a few days.

It's no surprise, then, that it took almost a decade before I learned how this story ultimately ended. In, again, one of those circumstantial flukes that favor all of us from time to time, I was heading back to Tallahassee as dusk began to darken the Northern Florida woods. More than two hours away from campus, a gorgeous golden aura clung to the tops of the trees, and the colors that faded in the full-strength Florida sun slowly started to reappear, biding their short time of pigment power before night rendered them several shades of gray. I was skipping through the radio again -- damn tape deck -- and suddenly I came across a sound that was instantly familiar. I couldn't place it at first, the chemical make-up of my memories spiking before I could manage any total recall. Then I recognized the voice... and then the story... and then the wonderfully evocative score. I was back in that limo on my way to Chicago, and I was finally going to hear the end of the long forgotten sci-fi saga.

It almost wasn't worth it. Turns out, the people were being transported to the alien world like... cattle are to the abattoir. The wonderful accommodations and sense of unease were just natural results of being treated like food. As E.G. Marshall offered that now familiar goodbye, I quickly gazed down at the dial. I pulled out the preset button and immediately pushed it back in. And from then on, whenever I wanted, I could listen to CBS Radio Mystery Theater, and it made many a late night excursion a fun, if frightening experience.

As a series, CBS Radio Mystery Theater (a nightly offering) ran the usual diversion gamut from serviceable to sensational. On any given evening, you could hear a classic tale of Victorian terror, a post-modern meditation on the differences between psychosis and the psychotic, a reworking of the standard werewolf mythology, or a whole new avenue in speculative scares. Using the creative cliché (but still incredibly effective) "theater of the mind", the well-drawn scripts measured exposition with excitement to forge a completely immersing experience -- especially driving all alone on a completely deserted roadway late at night.

Indeed, the imagery being discussed in each show would form horrifying hallucinations right before your eyes. The fiend with the taste for blood would chase the determined damsel, as her one-time-masculine champion lay injured and bleeding. The vampire women with the sexy voices seduced and then slaughtered their prey with eerie efficiency. The time travel experiments that would guarantee a scientist their longed for fame and fortune ended up destroying all of humanity, making the original discovery seem petty and obsolete. And the clever detectives of literature past used their keen sense of deduction to trail and apprehend the almost-too-clever killer. With voice acting that expertly captured the storylines and situations, CBS Radio Mystery Theater drew you into its world of warlocks and spacemen, ghosts and maniacs.

And it was more than just a way to pass the time (at one hour, it would only take up a fifth of the trip). CBS Radio Mystery Theater allowed for the rebirth of that human rarity -- the exploration of the imagination -- and within that underused ideal, a chance to get reacquainted with oneself. As kids, we all kept our inventiveness at open throttle, a valve of infinite possibilities that allowed us to understand and filter through wave after wave of unexplainable experience. Mystery Theater rekindled that sense. But perhaps the most important part of the show was that the medium employed was completely transitory in nature. There was no rewind button, no chance to stop the story to gather one's impressions. CBS Radio Mystery Theater was immediate and visceral. Once an episode ended, it was gone, part of the ephemera of existence. Sure, getting to hear an episode while making the trek back to Tallahassee was like having a make-believe mini-movie play out inside your mind, but the afterglow was far more telling. It proved how deprived we were in our show/explain everything modern mindset, and that the demons created in our head were at least as terrifying as the ones plastered across small or silver screens.

When college ended, so did my fascination with the show (in fact, it had ceased production the year before I graduated). I no longer found myself traveling to and from Tallahassee, but instead settled into a far more routine graduate school scenario near my home. On occasion, I would grab the clock radio and spin the knob, hoping with irrational optimism to locate the program again, but more times than not, I wound up on a local talk show, and found myself staying to snigger at the lunatics who made it their perplexing purpose to agitate the exasperated host. Videos also replaced the terror tales that CBS Radio Mystery Theater provided. For a couple of dollars, you could rent a bevy of b-movie and direct to video offerings, a chance to not only hear about, but see a collection of fair to middling macabre efforts. Sure, it seemed like cheating on the always mystical mental experience that the wireless provided, but maturity tends to blind the mind's eye, making the need for instant imagination gratification that much more pertinent. Such satisfaction was just a VHS away. It would be another couple decades before a chance Goggle on the Internet provided a set of resources for the series, as well as instructions for downloading available episodes.

Funny thing is, I have yet to listen to a single stored MP3. I have over 20 discs loaded with hundreds of series installments, from the early days of 1974 to the final few installments (with Tammy Grimes replacing Marshall as the show's voice). Thanks to the forbidden format of peer-to-peer swapping, I have enough examples of CBS Radio Mystery Theater to last a couple of lifetimes. But I still won't play them... not yet. It's really not a question of avoiding the silly sense of recapturing one's youth. Nor is it a fear of being underwhelmed by the very thing that used to, at one time, excite me so. No, the reason I haven't slapped one of those file-laden CDs into the computer is that I no longer have time to dream. My time is so monopolized by work and writing that I can't afford the hour it takes to get lost inside the series again. Like the hundreds of books that lay strewn around my office, I know I will get to it one day. I will find the time, nay MAKE it, to sit down and re-experience the familiarity -- and if I'm lucky, the fear -- that I cherished while making those hellacious trips back to college. And if I don't, I'll always have the memories. They satisfied me for almost 30 years. They can always do so again. That's the magic of the era, and of CBS Radio Mystery Theater.

* * *

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